Smarter Lunchrooms Accused of Junk Science

In the context of the school cafeteria, we have been considering the concept of psychological manipulation. It is considered morally superior to other kinds of manipulation, but there is room for discussion about that, especially when the issue is the presentation of illusory choices.

Given enough power, rulers can ratchet up the consequences of noncompliance. The king can persuade the nobles to go to war, and the nobles can persuade the serfs to enlist in the army. At each level of society, the use of various arms of the EAST formula may be so effective it is indistinguishable from coercion.

Corporations would be happiest if consumers would simply drive by and toss bundles of currency on the headquarters front lawn. But consumers demand to be treated with a little more class. The wise manufacturer will not try to make them accept a product through brute force. They are entitled to be wooed, and persuaded, by advertising. It goes back to FOMO.

To activate people’s Fear of Missing Out is a science, a manipulative dark art that is ruthlessly exploited by advertisers. With so many negative examples in the world’s archives, it is not surprising that people revolt against attempts to mold them.

And this connects with Smarter Lunchrooms how?

There are angles of the whole school lunch topic that many Americans find off-putting, such as whether the federal government should have any place in this at all, and how much say the locals should have, and who should pay, and when and how and why. This is about the very basis of the particular program, which is portrayed as wobbly.

Although Smarter Lunchrooms is touted as social engineering with a light touch, some ask if that is necessarily a good thing. Others say, in effect, “We would like to endorse it, but its basis looks pretty weak.” And then, there are outright critics.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown goes so far as to call choice architecture, and every other aspect of the program, a bunch of “feel-good fairytales about banana placement.” She explains in great detail the logistical shenanigans the originator went through in order to come up with something that would meet publishers’ criteria.

Just the facts, ma’am…

Brown was not the first to say harsh words, by the way. The terminology used by the director of Columbia University’s Applied Statistics Center, Andrew Gelman, was “run-of-the-mill, everyday, bread-and-butter junk science.”

Brown refers to a paper by a team of researchers which, for the academic-minded, breaks down the problems in excruciating detail. Childhood Obesity News will not go into it here, but one highlight is, “In total, they found approximately 150 inconsistencies in reported statistics from the four papers.” They also used the phrase “a breach of good publication ethics practice.” Brown writes,

Smarter Lunchrooms, launched in 2010 with funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), is the brainchild of two scientists at Cornell University: Brian Wansink, director of the school’s Food and Brand Lab… a former executive director of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion and a drafter of U.S. Dietary Guidelines, and David Just, director of the Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics.

Far from being a well-tested approach, the Smarter Lunchrooms program was implemented in schools across America before the first randomized control trials on its effectiveness were even begun.

There has been talk of “errors and inconsistencies going back decades,” along with explicit descriptions of certain troubling historical events. Brown references Prof. Eric Robinson, who has written about “problems ranging from simple sloppiness to errors that seriously call into question the integrity of all of Wansink’s work.” Even a graduate student called him out for questionable practices related to the accepted conventions of writing scientific papers.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Junk Science Behind ‘Smarter Lunchrooms'”,, 08/29/17
Image by Bread for the world/CC BY-ND 2.0

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